Reading group – first session
An interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity – challenges and insights
Interdisciplinarity is an immensely popular yet contested term. The first session of our reading group brought together students and researchers from a range of departments to explore this concept in theory and practice. Passages from Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity served as a starting point for our discussion.
Sabine Hark is professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies (ZIFG) at the Technical University Berlin. Her article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity from 2007 discusses some of the theoretical, methodological, and institutional problems that arise from the inconsistent claiming and positioning of the term.
Borrowing from feminist literary scholar Sneja Gunew (2002: 47-65), Hark describes research in the fields of Women’s and Gender Studies as ‘a continuing experiment in interdisciplinarity’ (Hark 2007: 24). While Hark acknowledges that Women’s Studies combines topics, ideas and methods from a range of fields within and beyond the academy, she criticises that scholars in this and in many other fields tend to take interdisciplinarity for granted. According to Hark, interdisciplinarity in Women’s Studies is ‘as much a seriously underthought critical, pedagogical and institutional concept as everywhere else in the academic universe’ (ibid.: 23).
A number of recent publications and research projects on interdisciplinarity indicate that interdisciplinarity is by no means underthought or taken for granted. Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM), and the Gendered Knowledges project constitute only three examples of initiatives at the University of Warwick that explore and critically examine interdisciplinary in theory and practice.
As explained on the website, the Gendered Knowledges project seeks to ‘explore radical interdisciplinary pedagogies in relation to Gender and Sexuality’. What does that mean? Following Stanley Fish, radical interdisciplinarity ‘begins with the assumption that the political is always and already inside those precincts [i.e. academic disciplines] and that the line separating them from the arena of social agitation is itself politically drawn and must be erased if action within the academy is to be continuous with the larger struggle against exploitation and oppression’ (Fish 1991). Radical interdisciplinarity, in other words, does not only combine different academic disciplines, it also relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.
We have only begun to embark on this radical interdisciplinary project. The first session of our reading illustrated some of the challenges and insights that come with interdisciplinary discussions of interdisciplinarity within the academy. Although the participants shared a common interest in interdisciplinary topics and methods, they did not share a theoretical and methodological framework to discuss these issues. Scholars, ideas and methods that were familiar to some participants were new to others. The participants handled these challenges surprisingly well. They introduced each other to thinkers and ideas, drew diagrams to illustrate concepts and discussed the potentials and limitations of interdisciplinary approaches in relation to their own work.
Have our discussions led to a shared definition of and position on interdisciplinarity? Certainly not! Yet it became apparent that conceptualisations and uses of interdisciplinarity vary between and within disciplines and that these differences can be productive. Against the background of this discussion, it can hardly come as a surprise that we came to different conclusions. Some of us defended the concept of interdisciplinarity and argued that it remains an immensely productive tool for research on gender and sexuality. Others called for post-disciplinary theoretical frameworks that aim to overcome academic disciplines as such, or endorsed transdisciplinary approaches.
Like interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in Gender Studies. According to the feminist theorist and physicist Karen Barad, a transdisciplinary approach ‘remains rigorously attentive to important details of specialized arguments within a given field, in an effort to foster constructive engagements across (and reworking of) interdisciplinary boundaries’ (2007: 25). I believe that there are interesting theoretical and political similarities between Barad’s call for transdisciplinarity and Fish’s argument for a radical interdisciplinarity, but I hope we can explore these and other ideas in the next session of our interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity.
Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke UP.
Fish, Stanley. Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do, in Issues in Integrative Studies 9 (1991), 97-125.
Gunew, Sneja (2002) ‘Feminist Cultural Literacy: Translating Differences, Cannibal
Options’, in Wiegman, Robyn (ed.), Women’s Studies on its Own,
Durham/London: Duke UP, 47-65.
Hark, Sabine. Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4 (2007), Special Issue 2, 11-33.